Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Hillary, Be Not Proud

Through Decision '08, the only conservative blog I can bring myself to read anymore, I found this incomprehensible criticism of some statements that Hillary Clinton recently made (I apologize for the length of the excerpt, but there's really not that much content to cut. Just tough it out):

In essence, Senator Clinton declared: The war in Iraq is Bush's mess, and it is his job to clean it up before I become President and have to do it myself.

More precisely, Senator Clinton argued that it was Bush's "decision to go to war with an ill-conceived plan and an incompetently executed strategy." That is, the Iraq war is Bush's mess. "We expect him to extricate our country from this before he leaves office." That is, we expect him to clean up his mess. Bush has said that this cleaning up the Iraq mess was "going to be left to his successor," namely, Senator Clinton herself, a prospect which explains the Senator's final outburst, "I think it is the height of irresponsibility and I really resent it." (Italics mine.)

And why shouldn't she resent it? Would you like to wake up one day, find that you are the President and that it is up to you to bring stability and order out of the chaos and bloodshed in Iraq?

The moral punch of the Senator's underlying analogy is obvious. We can all grasp it just as readily as Lincoln's compatriots could grasp his conceit about swapping horses in the middle of a stream. If someone else has made a mess, it's his job to clean it up—not yours or mine. For example, if mom comes home one day and finds that her sons have been playing paintball in the dinning room, it's their duty to clean up the mess they've made—not mom's. Nor could we blame mom for being resentful if, despite the obvious right and wrong of the situation, she ended up, as she often does, with the task of removing the splattered paint all by herself. Indeed, it is possible that Senator Clinton's analogy will have an especially potent appeal to women voters, since women have traditionally been assigned the thankless task of cleaning up the mess their men folk and boy folk leave in their wake. What woman can't say, "Been there, done that?"

There is, however, a problem with Senator Clinton's analogy—a problem so serious that it forces us to wonder if she genuinely understands the nature of the office that she is currently seeking, and to see what I mean let us go back to the case of Mr. Lincoln.

When Abraham Lincoln was sworn in as President, he inherited a mess in comparison with which Iraq pales to insignificance. The states in the Deep South had already left the Union. The previous President, James Buchanan, had not lifted a finger to keep the vast majority of Federal forts and arsenals from falling into the hands of the new Confederacy. Buchanan's position was that the Constitution did not allow for states to secede, but at the same time, neither did it allow the Federal government to use coercion to keep them in the Union against their will. So what to do, except to do nothing?

The biggest mess of all, however, arose from the fact that the newly inaugurated President's government was still in control of two remaining military outposts in the Confederate States, Fort Moultrie in Florida and Fort Sumter in South Carolina. Had Buchanan given the order to evacuate both forts while he was still President, then Lincoln would not have been faced with the dreadful decision of whether to abandon them or to re-supply them when it was his turn to be President. By abandoning these forts, Lincoln knew he might avoid a civil war; by re-supplying them, he knew he would almost certainly begin one. Yet by abandoning the forts, Lincoln also knew that he would be abandoning the Union. Thus the choice that confronted Lincoln on obtaining the office of Presidency was the hideous alternative of disunion or civil war—in short, the mother of all messes.

Historians have, by and large, been exceedingly harsh on Buchanan. He should have done something decisive, the way Lincoln did. Yet Buchanan himself had no more choices than Lincoln did. Yes, Buchanan in theory could have acted decisively: he might have decisively let "the erring sisters" go in peace, or else he could have decisively started the blood bath that became known as the American Civil War. But in either case, Lincoln would have inherited the horrific consequences of Buchanan's very decisiveness—a raging civil war already in progress or a Confederacy of Southern States whose legitimacy had already been recognized by the North. In other words, no matter what Buchanan did or didn't do, Lincoln was bound to become President with an enormous mess on his hands. But that, we must remind ourselves—and Senator Clinton--is the nature of the American Presidency. If you become President, the chances are very good that you will have to start by taking responsibility for someone else's mess.

There are myriad reasons to dismiss comparisons of the current conflict in Iraq to the American Civil War, but only one really matters in this case: the complete disparity between the events leading up to the American Civil War and the events leading up to the current conflict in Iraq.

The author refers, near the end of the piece, to the fact that it was inevitable that Lincoln would have to clean up some mess, because no options that Buchanan had before him would have made for a tidy resolution of the conflict before Lincoln took office. Fair enough. I don't know enough about Civil War history to make a pronouncement on this, but I have no problem accepting it as given. It fits well enough into whatever historical narrative I have been taught over the years.

The problem, though, is that for the analogy to hold, all of the events that precipitated the mess that Buchanan handed to Lincoln would have to have been Buchanan's fault directly. The current conflict in Iraq is and always has been George W. Bush's conflict in Iraq. After 9/11, he pushed the war with Iraq. He shifted the focus from Afghanistan, and the people who actually attacked us. He's owned this "war" from the get-go.

In contrast, any student who wasn't asleep during U.S. History in high school could tell you that the events that precipitated the American Civil War had been brewing for over 50 years. Indeed, upon passage of the Missouri Compromise, Thomas Jefferson penned the following lines to John Holmes*:

"...this momentous question, like a fire bell in the night, awakened and filled me with terror. I considered it at once as the knell of the Union. It is hushed, indeed, for the moment. But this is a reprieve only, not a final sentence. A geographical line, coinciding with a marked principle, moral and political, once conceived and held up to the angry passions of men, will never be obliterated; and every new irritation will mark it deeper and deeper."

You may notice that I bolded all of the references to "Senator Clinton's analogy" in the article above. That was just to point out the fact that Senator Clinton made no analogy. The author of the article did, and it's a pretty easy one to dismiss as fatuous. But Senator Clinton made a statement about resenting the fact that George Bush got our country into the mess it's in now in the Middle East. No analogy there.


*Maybe it's indicative of the fact that I'm depraved, but when I saw the name "John Holmes," my immediate thought wasn't of a 19th century politician.